Run support is a strange thing.
In the past, Tim Wakefield was often betrayed by his offense. Over the past four seasons, the Red Sox had averaged five runs for each of the knuckleballer’s starts – not bad, all things considered, but well below the norm for an offense that has been a juggernaut in recent years.
That was in part the result of the fact that Wakefield’s need for a personal catcher has often hindered the offense, but it has also been a reflection of simple poor luck. That being the case, the knuckleballer seems to have tapped into a far more generous vein of fortune in the early stages of 2009.
For the most part, Wakefield has been excellent. But on Saturday, he was no better than ordinary, allowing five runs in as many innings.
Yet he still re-established himself as the all-time wins leader against the Tampa Bay Rays, claiming his 20th ‘W’ against the franchise (and separating himself from Mike Mussina, who had 19 career wins against the Rays) thanks to an outpouring of offensive support.
The Sox’ 10-6 victory over the Rays (RECAP HERE) was primarily about the offense and secondarily about middle relief, where Hideki Okajima (two scoreless innings) and Ramon Ramirez (scoreless eighth inning) both offered brilliance.
But Wakefield is the one who claimed a victory, thanks to a Boston lineup that has suddenly treated him with immense generosity. The Sox are averaging 7.2 runs in his five starts thus far, and the 42-year-old has been around for long enough to appreciate the development.
"The offense won the game tonight," Wakefield told reporters. "It was nice to not pitch so well and get a win. I'm just glad that we scored some runs and gained some momentum going back on our side."
Here are five things that we learned on a night when the Sox won for just the second time in their last dozen games at Tropicana Field:
THE OFFENSE CONTINUES TO ROLL
The Red Sox have now won three games this year in which they’ve permitted six or more runs. That may not sound like much, but in 162 games last year, they won just six such games, tied for the second fewest in the majors.
The offense has forgiven many sins of the starting pitching staff in the early stages of the 2009 season. What the team has accomplished at the plate, particularly since a 2-6 start, has been startling.
The lineup has scored 10 or more runs in five games this year (in a 16-day span, no less), tied for the most in the majors. The Sox are on a pace to put up double-digit run totals in 34 games this year, a mark that would shatter the standard of 25 such outbursts, set in 2004.
Once again, the Sox demonstrated top-to-bottom balance on Saturday. Seven different lineup members reached base at least twice. Every starter except David Ortiz (two walks, HBP) had a hit.
As a result, even though the Sox got only five unimpressive innings from their starter, they still claimed a win, on a night when they might not have had an expectation of doing so.
(Given the top-to-bottom strength of the lineup, the Sox were no doubt relieved to find out that Jason Bay, who left Saturday’s game early with a left ankle contusion after fouling a ball off of that area, appears to have escaped harm. The outfielder told reporters that the injury was not serious, and that he expects to return to the lineup on Sunday.)
DUSTIN PEDROIA IS TAKING HIS WALKS
If there was a single blemish on Dustin Pedroia’s 2008 campaign – and a slight one at that – it was the fact that, for the first time in his life, he struck out more times (52) than he walks (50).
Early this season, it appears that Pedroia is on target to correct that “deficiency.” He walked 11 times in 22 games in April, tied for the most free passes he’s accepted in any single month in his career, while striking out nine times.
On Saturday, he walked a career-high three times. He even accepted one intentional pass (the third of his career) from Rays left-hander Brian Shouse.
He now has more walks (14) than strikeouts (9), and as many extra-base hits as whiffs. That combination helps to define what makes Pedroia lethal.
“Those are statistics indicative of a guy who drives the ball, knows the strike zone, knows the pitches he can drive,” said hitting coach Dave Magadan this spring. “When you’re driving the ball into the gaps, getting extra-base hits, and not a guy who strikes out much, you’re a force in the offense.”
Though there is little question that Pedroia is viewed by opposing teams as a force, the intentional walk deserves a footnote. Shouse pitched around Pedroia because his role is to retire left-handers. Nonetheless, there was something startling about seeing a team pitch around anyone to set up a left-on-left match-up against David Ortiz.
Since Ortiz arrived in Boston for the 2003 season, the second hitter had been intentionally walked just once before – and that came in a game when Jay Payton was manning the third spot in the order in 2005. At the risk of dwelling on the early-season struggles of Ortiz, the intentional walk to Pedroia was another startling reminder of the way in which opposing teams are treating the slugger as a different sort of threat this year.
THE (RECKLESSLY?) RUNNING RED SOX
Rays starter Jeff Niemann, listed at 6-foot-9, has a lot of moving parts that make him vulnerable to stolen bases. And so it came as no great surprise that after Jacoby Ellsbury reached on an error against Niemann in the second inning on Saturday, he swiped second on the next pitch.
That theft came moments after teammate Nick Green had been rather less successful. Green had reached on an infield single, and tried to take advantage of Niemann’s deliberate delivery by taking off for second with Ellsbury batting.
But the Sox shortstop – who entered yesterday just 5-for-13 in stolen base attempts in almost 300 career games – fell flat on his face between first and second, and was thrown out.
Ellsbury went on to steal three bags on Saturday, and Jason Bay added another. The Sox now rank fourth in the majors and third in the American League with 20 steals.
But with the failure of Green’s attempted larceny, the Sox have also been caught nine times, tied for most in the A.L. and third in the majors. Their 69 percent success rate on steal attempts is a very middle-of-the-pack 18th in the majors.
A year ago, the Sox unveiled a running game that was both aggressive (120 steals, 3rd in the A.L.) and successful (77 percent, 2nd best in the A.L.). This year, they are losing more outs on the bases. If that persists, then the Sox may soon be forced to reconsider the situations in which they try to generate offense on the bases instead of in the batter’s box.
It would be one thing, after all, if the Sox felt compelled to resort to the steal because they lacked thump in their lineup. But with a team OPS of .832 (second in the majors), the cost of wasting an out on the bases is too substantial to pursue a high-risk baserunning strategy.
THE WAIT CONTINUES FOR THE RED SOX ROTATION
The rotation remains the unexpected early-season weak link on the Red Sox. Boston starters have a hard-to-believe 5.81 ERA, a mark that is 28th in the majors.
And so it is natural to wonder when a personnel shuffle might be in order. Of course, the scheduled activation of both Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Smoltz from the disabled list plays a significant part in that equation.
The timetable for each came into slightly sharper relief on Saturday. Matsuzaka threw a bullpen session as his final tuneup for a 45-50 pitch rehab start with Triple-A Pawtucket on Tuesday. The Boston Herald is reporting that Matsuzaka is expected to make two additional rehab outings before getting activated around May 19.
As for Smoltz, his rehab schedule was delayed when he and the team decided to shut him down for a weak in an effort to focus on further strengthening his surgically repaired right shoulder.
but the pitcher told reporters that despite the fact that he no longer views the beginning of June as a reachable target, he still anticipates a return by the middle of next month.
"June is [still] very realistic," Smoltz told reporters.
Both the Sox and the pitcher committed to taking a long-term view with his rehab at the time when he signed. The team was focused less on his initial return date than on his potential contributions as a pitcher with one of the most impressive October resumes in major-league history. A delay in his initial return is easy for the club to swallow if it offers a greater likelihood of complete health at the end of the year.
NICK GREEN IS IN A TERRIBLE FIELDING SLUMP…AND NO ONE SEEMS TO CARE
If Julio Lugo had committed six errors in 19 games, irate New Englanders would likely be calling for something between his immediate release and imprisonment. But Nick Green’s entirely unexpected offensive contributions have created an attitude of complete forgiveness for his surprising succession of miscues.
Green collected three hits and drove in three runs on Saturday. He is hitting .304 with an .835 OPS and 10 RBIs, and with runners in scoring position, he is now 6-for-15 (.400), all gravy given that he has now started about 16 more games at short this year than he or the Red Sox expected.
Green stands a decent shot of breaking his career high for errors in a season. He had eight miscues as a rookie in 2004. That said, he probably won’t complain too much if he sets a new standard, insofar as it will mean that he is continuing to get playing time in the majors, something that seemed unlikely before the year began.